Male-host bars—mirror images of nightspots where giggling girls fawn over inebriated businessmen—have been on the fringe of Japan's colorful nightlife for decades, catering to aged sugar mamas and scrawny scroungers with hair gel and overlaundered black suits. Kiss those days sayonara. Japan's host clubs have gone mainstream—without getting overly squeaky clean. The newly burnished male host—sans gold teeth and creepy leer—is Japan's latest celebrity. Hosts are appearing on TV talk shows and publishing memoirs, how-to guides and even business books. A high-profile TV movie about a host club aired last month, starring a dream roster of the country's hottest male actors. There are hundreds of such clubs in areas like Tokyo's Kabuki-cho and they vie for business via cell phones and the Internet, which has search sites that rank the city's top hosts by looks and charm quotient. For the customers, Japan's trend-conscious young women, a night at a host bar is part thrill, part danger. The thrill, of course, is somewhat sexual: the guys are attentive, hunky and dangle the possibility they might be available after the clubs close. The danger is financial: after entrance fees, host commissions and nosebleed-priced drinks, a customer can rack up a $10,000 bill in a single night.
If the industry has a poster boy, it's Reiji, a career host and owner of Player's Club Dios. Parked on a rear banquette, Reiji surveys his kingdom in a pin-striped, three-piece Gianfranco Ferre suit and rimless spectacles, looking like a dashing young CEO—which, in fact, he is. Reiji's two host bars gross $8 million a year and he's planning a chain of clubs and restaurants. He has authored two books aimed at businessmen and speaks at universities and to corporations. "I am called the 'King of Hosts,'" he says, "but the reason they want me is because I know the secret to success in business." Which is, of course, women. The host-club industry is roaring, Reiji says, because it focuses relentlessly on the most powerful segment of Japan's faltering consumer market. "As a host and as a businessman, I use what I know to try to think like a woman. Japanese men laugh at that," Reiji says softly, leaning in close. "But I tell you, any business today that doesn't know what women want is a business that won't survive."
What a woman wants, according to his research, is attention, and at a host club, she's overwhelmed. Clubs range from casual pubs to glitzy disco-like halls, but all use pretty much the same system. A woman is lured in with a relatively cheap first-time fee of $50 to $100. On that visit, she must choose her "main" host. Because whomever she picks will receive an up-front commission and half the take from all of her bills whenever she comes to the club, the whole staff showers the newcomer with charm. For a Japanese woman consigned to supporting roles all her life, the star treatment is pretty irresistible. (If she grows sick of her main host, she simply shifts her business to a new club.)
Chika Aoyama, 23, is on her fourth jaunt to a host club, this time with a group of associates from her job in TV. As a leggy graduate of one of the country's best schools, Keio University, she defies the stereotype of host-club customers as dateless losers or low-class nightlife workers. "Just a year ago, I thought host clubs were scary places where men tried to fool you out of a lot of money," Aoyama says. "But I found the boys are so friendly and unthreatening. In the shortest time, it's gone from illicit to normal."
But it's still a business. A host may juggle dozens of clients at a time. Some visit the club just a few times a year, but those who come regularly require a significant amount of off-duty attention. Takuya Sawamura, a gregarious, pink-haired host in Kobe, phones his top clients a few times a week, tags along on shopping trips and acts as their boyfriend at class reunions. He also provides sex. "It's whatever the client wants," he says. He isn't paid cash for these favors, but the women thank him by racking up fat expenses at the club and lavishing him with pricey gifts.
"What we sell is not a thing," Sawamura muses. "If they just wanted a drink, they could go to a liquor store. If they wanted sex, they could call a gigolo. What they want and we provide is caring. Kindness. The knowledge that someone is thinking of them." The common misperception, especially among men, is that male hosts lead glamorous lives with women lavishing on them Rolexes, Dom Perignon and sex. Sawamura, who makes $80,000 a year, laughs. "It's more about research, brains and lots of hard work."
That's obviously not what's on the minds of the 30 young men who turn up every week on Reiji's doorstep begging for jobs. Working as a male host still carries seedy connotations, but the recession has led them to seek out unusual career paths. Katsumasa Tanaka, 26, was a salaried worker at an auto-parts company in Osaka until earlier this year. The slender six-footer with Chiclet teeth came to Tokyo with dreams of singing and acting. After auditioning for a role in a movie about male hosts, he decided he could be one himself. Though top hosts can earn well into six figures, Tanaka is happy with $3,000 a month and an audition-friendly schedule. "It's ideal, except for one thing," he says. "I can't tell my parents."
The sleazy image persists because, as the competition increases, business tactics are getting rough. Police say hosts are preying on housewives and teenage girls, who are sometimes forced into prostitution when they can't pay off five- or six-figure bills. "Schoolgirls are always looking for the latest fad," says Sawamura, "and right now, host clubs are it."
That stigma bothers entrepreneurs like Reiji, who seek a more mainstream image. To that end, he employs only fresh-scrubbed college grads like Fumiya, 26, a former radio DJ, and Noa, 25, who by day works in sales for a computer company. The $1 million interior of his Roppongi club purrs sophistication. Customers pay a flat fee of $30 an hour, including free wine—unless they want to impress their host by ordering the $10,000 bottle. The floor show is more high-school talent night than Chippendales. "We want women to feel it's safe, comfortable and fun," he says.
If Reiji has his way, his clubs will become the model for any service-oriented business in Japan. "Disneyland is a franchise that's attained global success by knowing what a child wants," he says. "If I can get women to love me as much as children love Mickey Mouse—and if I can teach you how—is there any business that won't find value in that?" You might shake your head, finding it hard to make the connection with any other business you know. But give Reiji a fistful of yen for a bottle of cognac and a few hours next to you on the banquette, and it will all sound perfectly charming.